Netflix, misplaced rage and change.

Are you really that mad about Netflix? Really?


Are you going to cancel your account and go use another (read: barely existent) service instead in a huff? I bet you don’t. [Oh yes, I WILL] No, seriously, you probably won’t. In fact, I bet you’re upset primarily because you don’t know what else to do, and that’s ok, but let’s keep things in perspective. I don’t want to disregard anyone’s feelings, but there’s also a bigger picture here.

First of all, I completely understand that some people need to keep both a DVD plan and a streaming plan. Perhaps you have kids and you need those DVD-only movies. Perhaps you just need to see the latest and greatest as soon as it comes out. I get it. Really, I do. And Netflix gets it, which is why it’s making terrible decisions on spinning off and rebranding its services.

See what I did there? All in one fell swoop, I made everyone feel better about everything. But seriously, that name is horrible, and we all know it, and making people go to two different websites to do what they previously did nicely on one is terrible, horrible UX and someone should be punished severely for it.

But Netflix doesn’t care. Sure, Reed wrote us all that nice letter, but realistically, the company is making a huge play here, and we all need to understand what it entails. It’s straddling two very different distribution strategies; one with a viable future, and one that will eventually (possibly sooner than you think right now) die out. Hollywood’s asinine licensing agreements are not making anything any easier. To its credit, Netflix has been able to do what very few others to date have been able to: take insanely valuable content and create a business around it that didn’t involve the massive overhead a previous venture would have entailed. Think about it – Netflix wasn’t giving away DVD players to get into homes – it was cutting deals with hardware manufacturers to put streaming in as many places as possible. The infrastructure is the hard part, and it pulled a trojan horse maneuver on a litany of devices while everyone just watched.

But this isn’t meant to be a third-party apology for Netflix’s insensitive choices as of late. That pricing thing was handled poorly, as Hastings admitted, and Qwikster, well, let’s just say that if you want to guarantee a product’s demise, name it like a late 90s sitcom neighbor.

The bottom line is that Netflix is doing something that takes balls. Balls that other companies don’t have because they’re hedging bets and burning money on dying ideas. These are Apple balls. It’s the kind of attitude that understands and accepts that bridges will be burned, but sees a bigger picture that analysts and the immediate outcry will miss. I canceled my DVD plan months ago, after watching a single disc sit unwatched next to the TV for over a year. Am I completely satisfied with the streaming plan? Hell no, but it’s good enough for me now, and it can be safely assumed that given its trajectory, it will continue to get better. In fact, my biggest gripe with the streaming service has nothing to do with Netflix at all – it’s that I can queue up movies one day, and then since some labyrinthine license agreement has run its course, with no notice to me, those movies vanish, possibly never to return to that format.

So if you’re really going to get good and mad, make sure you’re leveling those barrels at the people who deserve your fury. Hollywood is afraid of change, and instead of embracing it and working to make a better distribution system with a company like Netflix who so obviously gets it, they’re including digital copies of movies with expiration dates with plastic discs in stores. They’re making sure you have a hard time enjoying what you’re more than happy to pay for by punishing you for waiting too long to watch the things you want to watch. That’s worth being pissed off about.

Tron love, and why I can’t wait for Legacy.

People forget just how groundbreaking Tron was in its day. We all think about the Matrix as that seminal turning point in computer-driven cinema (well, a lot of people do, at least) but Tron was pivotal in adopting the use of computers into the process of filmmaking. In fact, the movie was snubbed at the Oscars the following year because it was deemed as “cheating” by the Academy, as the special effects were predominantly CG. Of course, that became de rigueur almost immediately thereafter, sending the entire movie industry into a tailspin, the likes of which it has never fully recovered from. If you think I’m over-exaggerating, think about the last time you saw an explosion that wasn’t created on a computer. You can probably count on one hand how many of those there were in the last decade or so.

For me, it’s a touchstone back to my childhood. My well-worn VHS copy of Tron still sits in a Rubbermaid container, sealed away from my musty garage. I think I need to break it out and watch that copy, if only for the great trailers for other more “mature” Disney fare, like The Watcher in the Woods. I have the soundtrack, on both CD and vinyl, as well as memorabilia from both the US and Japanese release of the movie. Legacy looks so good I pee a little every time I watch the trailer. My only hope is that they don’t completely decimate the magic that made the first movie so special to a nerdy kid like me who was obsessed with anything tech-related in favor of eye candy. It’s not Citizen Kane, but Tron has its charms.

Tron was ahead of its time. Murderous, rogue, self-aware AI on a rampage, human-computer fusion, WWII allegories (ok, it’s a stretch, but you can see it) – all present in the story. At its center, a struggle, not against technology – but against restriction of technology through the censoring of thoughts and ideas. As goofy as people might think this movie is, it was prescient then, and it’s still valid now. For me, it’s a wonderful piece of my childhood of which I never tire.

I heard that the crew from Tron Legacy is getting poked to have a go at The Black Hole, another one of my childhood sci-fi gems. That movie (specifically Maximillian) scared the crap out of me. Silly by today’s standards, as a kid, that death-dealing red robot and those empty-faced things were creepy as hell. Here’s hoping that both Tron Legacy – and the possible Black Hole reboot – are purely awesome.

Movie nerd boner.

While listening to the always geeky, always hilarious Geek Show Podcast this afternoon, in the episode titled “Brokeback Podcast”, there was a discussion about connections between a lot of Tarantino’s characters in his films. I knew of this phenomenon, but what I didn’t know was that Sgt. Donny Donowitz (played by Eli Roth) from Inglorious Basterds was supposed to be the father of film producer Lee Donowitz (played by Saul Rubinek) in True Romance, which was penned by Tarantino, and also happens to be one of my favorite movies. That little nugget blew my mind clear out of my skull. I love stuff like that, when characters sort of cross over between stories. Awesome.

The death of entertainment, at the hands of its purveyors.

As I sit here, patiently waiting for the FiOS installation to be complete at my fiancée’s apartment, I can’t help but think about the massive effect it’s going to have on our entertainment consumption. But more specifically, I’m thinking about how my entertainment consumption has changed over the past few years, due in no small part to the senseless and otherwise counterintuitive anti-consumer actions that companies have taken to prevent people from enjoying their content.

Right now, we are in a transitional state for entertainment. People are spending more time online in social communities and experiencing media from thousands, if not millions of different sources, and the Internet has inspired regular people to create content and share it. More importantly, the companies that give us a large part of the content we enjoy are observing this sea change and want to monetize it, and for good reason. Content can zip around the world online in seconds, and being online opens a dialogue between provider and consumer that simply didn’t exist before. Media companies can now instantly gauge how people react to their products, which is tantamount to their discovery of the Holy Grail. Untold amounts of money get funneled into focus groups and audience analysis for this very reason.

Ironically, although unsurprisingly, these same companies are resistant to this idea of their content being available on the Internet. It took an extremely long time for them to even accept the iTunes model, and it’s been immensely successful for all parties. Music, movies, and television are all readily available through the iTunes store, proving that most people – most – will pay for something if you make it easy enough to access and readily available for them (read: organized, searchable, low barrier to entry).

There is, of course, a subset of the population that will always turn to BitTorrent or other “pirate” methods to obtain media. Entertainment companies want to grind this phenomenon out like a spent cigarette, but they fail to realize that it is this community that does all the innovating, and this community that figured out how to push huge amounts of data around the world with a startlingly easy amount of effort. Many have speculated that the file sharing protocols BitTorrent uses would be of great use to the entertainment industry, if they’d only get behind them, and support them as opposed to fighting natural technological progress tooth and nail, at every turn.

Part of the reason people continue to engage in this behavior is because it is so unimaginably difficult for an everyday person to do what they want to with most of their media. Sure, you can rip CDs into iTunes, but you can’t do that for DVDs. Nope, you can rip them legally, but the act of circumventing the encryption of the disc content is illegal according to the terms of the DMCA. So you’re technically allowed to back up your videos, but only if you know of some kind of binary alchemy that gets the video off without touching the encryption. Impossible. Furthermore, I can’t legally take a movie I purchased on a physical disc, rip it, shrink it, and watch it on my iPhone without breaking the law. I’m supposed to buy another “iPhone ready” copy – of something I already own. This blatant disregard for both honest, paying customers and the shifting needs of consumers at this point in time is insulting, illogical, and ultimately obnoxious. Think about buying a shirt that you were allowed to wear to work, but if you want to wear it to the supermarket, you can’t. You need to buy the same shirt again, slightly different – the “supermarket compatible” version of the garment. It’s fundamentally insane.

The important fact to remember is that the move to ubiquitous, legal Internet content availability is not only inevitable, but it’s already here. Sites like Hulu have made enormous inroads in the Internet world by working directly with content providers, in this case NBC and Fox (and most recently ABC) to bring the content directly to the masses, in a palatable, ad-supported structure. Here’s where things get interesting, however. In a world where ad money flows based on archaic metrics like Nielsen boxes, the Internet becomes a finitely quantifiable entity. When a network sells ad time now, they tell advertisers that they have X million people that they assume are tuning in, based on the extrapolation of data derived from those Nielsen systems. In a time when Google Analytics makes keeping track of your mom’s blog in minute detail not only possible, but relatively simple, this kind of disingenuous statistical manipulation only serves to further weaken a system that is already feeling cracks in its foundation.

The mathematical constant in this equation is greed. Greed fueled by a logic set that is firmly rooted in another time, and only applicable to a culture that is indistinguishable from the one we live in. If I record a show on a DVR, I always jump commercials. No question. If I watch on Hulu, I am forced to sit through a few commercials, but they are fairly unobtrusive, very short, and I don’t even mind them. So why is it that my Internet “eyeballs” are less valuable than the broadcast TV “eyeballs”? Simple – they know exactly how many people are watching – or not watching, as the case may be – online. Broadcast TV, by the very nature of those metrics, does not know, and hence, can continue in an increasingly failing business model, charging money for ads people aren’t watching, and losing viewers in the process, as people move to other distribution methods.

Case in point: if I can see the last five episodes of 24 on Hulu, and have never seen another single episode, yet want to get involved in the series, and perhaps ultimately begin watching the regular broadcast because I fall in love with it, why can’t I see all the back episodes on Hulu? Wouldn’t Fox rather I sit through six or seven year’s worth of episodes and embedded ads (which I  happily would, by the way) than not? I’m not buying the DVDs, nor am I purchasing all the seasons on iTunes. I could rent them from Netflix, a company that is successfully (albeit slowly) bridging the gap between old and new distribution channels with their movie streaming model, but I’m not doing that either, because I’m done dealing with physical media, if I can help it. What I want is to be able to turn on my computer, go to Hulu, and see my episode. Period. No complications, no jumping through hoops, no waiting. I get what I want, instantly, and they get my attention, compliantly watching advertisements I would otherwise ignore, avoid, or not see at all. Instead, I see this, at the top of the Hulu 24 page:

We can offer five current episodes on a rolling basis.

We are currently cycling through Season 1, posting 5 episodes to start, adding one every Tuesday and taking down the oldest as we do so.

It just doesn’t make sense. So unless I happen to sync my life with the schedule Fox is allowing Hulu to use, I can’t see what I want, when I want it. It’s like missing broadcast episodes all over again. It’s absolutely ludicrous!

The world is changing, and peoples’ needs are changing with it. If you force people to stick to something they don’t want anymore, and don’t offer a better alternative, you face two choices: either they abandon you and go somewhere else entirely, or they continue to get your content through the method they prefer, which is sometimes illegal, but easier. Entertainment companies need to embrace these new distribution channels and listen to the voices that actually are consuming the content, not their internal, sycophantic analysts. As for me, I’ll be catching last night’s Dollhouse season finale on Hulu later, just as soon as the FiOS guy gives me the thumbs-up.